Among the celebrations and self-congratulations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps it is worth mentioning the process involved as opposed to the event. Contrary to what some may think, this was not exactly a full triumph of freedom orchestrated by a Ronald Reagan-led US in the space of ten years. Instead, it culminated a long process of decay within the Stalinist camp that was the result of internal contradictions that analysts of regime change have seen in other forms of authoritarianism. Not to belabor the point, but authoritarian regimes tend to fall for the same reasons even if their specific ideologies may differ. Defeat in war is one such reason, but where the regime is long-lived and institutionalised, the source of decay is from within the regime itself. Institutional sclerosis and lack of responsiveness are to key measures of authoritarian regime decline. Short of war, the role of external agents in authoritarian demise is marginal, at best serving as an accelerant for long-standing trends. That was clearly evident in the Soviet bloc, and once the repressive apparatus decided not to increase its support for Stalinist regimes in the face of rising socio-economic unrest, it was only a matter of time before they fell. Yet, interestingly enough, none of the Sovietologists in Western academia or intelligence agencies foresaw the inevitable until events were already unfolding (something that reflects the nature of their training, which is now evident in US approaches to MIddle Eastern and Chinese studies. To put it bluntly: studying countries from an adversarial viewpoint often leaves analysts unawares of both the broad and narrow nuances that make or break a given form of rule).
Be that as it may, it is not the subject I wish to address here. Instead, I simply wish to note that the post-collapse era in the former Eastern bloc has been a mixed blessing rather than an unqualified triumph for democracy or capitalism, and that is largely due to the nature of the regime transitions themselves.
Students of regime change note that the transition to capitalist democracy from socialist authoritarianism occurs in one of two general ways involving three specific processes. The first two processes of change Â are called sequential transitions, where either change in the economic structure is followed by change in the political structure or vice versa. For example, China is undergoing a long transition whereby its economic bases have moved from socialist to capitalistic, yet it retains one-party rule while the transition is ongoing. Here structural change precedes political change. With some variances, this is what Cuba and Vietnam are doing today, and was also the case in Chile in the period 1973-1990, where the market-oriented economic base was cemented under dictatorial rule, which was followed by a period of authoritarian regime liberalisation leading to the restoration of democracy. Â More broadly, the sequence holds true for a number of countries: e.g. South Korea, South Africa, the Philippines and Taiwan allÂ fostered capitalism before they embraced democracy.Â It is important to note that political liberalisation leading to democracy is not often the stated intention of the liberalising authoritarian elite, but becomes an increasingly possible outcome once command economies are dismantled simply because of the proliferation of private actors and decentralisation of economic decision-making that ensues. At that point the genie is pretty much out of the bottle–but not always.
Conversely, political change towards democracy can precede economic change towards capitalism, although it is generally believed that such a sequence is more difficult to achieve because democratic politics allows subordinate groups to organise electoral resistance to economic dislocations caused by a shift to market-oriented macro-economic policy. This was seen in Argentina in the 1990s and Mexico in the early Â 2000’s. Generally speaking, students of regime change agree that economic change ideally should precede political change simply because the latter occur after populations have gotten used to the new economic facts of life. That counsels for so-called “top-down” transitions where authoritarians control the timing and tempo of sequential economic and political changes leading to democracy. Put differently, once the new (diminished) threshold of economic consent has been established, elections can be held. This is in contrast to “bottom-up” regime change whereby the masses rise against the authoritarians before the latter are Â able to schedule an orderly transition sequence, often leading to political conflict and economic stagnation. Although there are (semi) peaceful forms of bottom-up change (such as Argentina after the Falklands War or the People’s “revolution” in the Philippines), social revolutions are the most intense form of “bottom-up” change, and it should be noted that in most modern instances they result in the imposition of a new form of authoritarianism rather than democracy.
That brings up the second general transition path: simultaneous transitions. Analysts concur that, due to the myriad complexities involved, simultaneous transitions from socialist authoritarianism to democracy and capitalism are the least likely to succeed. In some sense, they are directly contradictory in that they involve the opening of the political franchise while at the same time narrowing social redistribution networks, pubic goods and other socialist “entitlements” (noting here that the trade off in authoritarian socialism was supposed to be diminished political voice in exchange for increased social egalitarianism and welfare). The general line is that a country can do one sequence or the other with some chance of success, but in trying to do both at the same time it is almost guaranteed to do neither. That, however, was something that Western political elites ignored or did not care about in their headlong push to “open” these former Stalinist societies to Western economic and political influence.
Ergo, the Fall of the Wall. Never mind that Â Polish dockworkers began the slow crumbling of European Stalinism with their strikes in 1980, that Glasnost and Perestroika accelerated it, and that the Berlin Wall came at the end rather than the beginning of the process of Stalinist decline. Or that the fall of communism in Romania was violent and resulted in a different Stalinist cadre taking over. Or that the result of the implosion of Yugoslavia was genocide at the hands of Serbians that required repeated NATO military interventions. Instead, let us note that the entire Soviet bloc, from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Caucuses and into Central Asia, endured simultaneous transitions with very mixed results. Some countries–the CzechÂ Republic, Hungary,Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia, for example–managed to weather the transition process and are now doing remarkably well as market-oriented democracies. Others–Georgia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and all of the Central Asian “stans,” are governed by mixtures of elected authoritarians and oligarchs, to which can be added the centre piece, Russia. In many of these countries the transition to market capitalism has also been thwarted, and instead has turned into variations of crony-capitalism, mafia-capitalism, oligarchical control and/or state capitalism in strategic industries (especially energy resource extraction). In fact, in most of the former Stalinist world there is neither democracy or markets at play in the lives of the average citizen. In many countries pre-Soviet ethnic-religious divisions have come back to the fore, and in some of these countries conditions are worse than they were before (Chechnya). Ultra-nationalist movements have gained ground in many former Soviet republics, and in response Communists have started to regroup.
The broader reasons for this are multiple and deeply rooted in social, political and economic authoritarian legacies that cannot be changed or dismantled in a generation, much less overnight. But the precipitating reason lies in the simultaneity of the transitions themselves: absent a historically rooted culture of democracy, social tolerance and market exchange, most of the former Soviet bloc became a field of play for economic opportunists and demagogues rather than democrats and entrepreneurs. What is most striking is that, once having realised the difficulties in simultaneously pursuing democracy and market economics in post-Soviet contexts, both Western as well as local elites have apparently made the decision to support markets (even in their quasi-capitalistic versions) rather than democracy in most of that world. Whether by choice or chance, there is no elective affinity between democracy and market economics in these contexts.
Thus, we should view the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a jaundiced eye. On the one hand, it marked the death of European Stalinism and liberated millions of people from that scourge. On the other hand, for many it did not deliver on its promise of freedom and prosperity, and is still far from doing so in many parts of the non-European former Soviet bloc. More generally, authoritarian regime transitions may be a universal good, but only if they lead to something better. That has not always been the case in the Post-Cold War world. Less self-congratulation and more reflection would therefore seem to be in order.